Spoilers below for the Season 12 finale of NCIS: Los Angeles, so be warned!
One of the biggest eccentricities within the entire NCIS franchise involves the whereabouts of Linda Hunt's Operational Manager Hetty Lange, who has only appeared a few times throughout NCIS: Los Angeles Season 12 run, largely due to COVID concerns for the 76-year-old actress. It's par for the course at this point, with Hunt having previously taking on far less acting work in the aftermath of a car accident in 2018. But loyal fans remain vigilant about wanting to see Hetty back in action on NCIS: L.A., and the character made a grand return in the Season 12 finale, titled "A Tale of Two Igors."
The creative team tried to play a fast one on NCIS: Los Angeles fans early on in the finale, with Gerald McRaney's Admiral Kilbride ordering others to clear out Hetty's office. (Or her "antique store," as he so rudely put it.) Whenever Renée Felice Smith's Nell raised concerns about changing things up in Hetty's absence, he gave her the ultimatum to either officially take Hetty's position as Operations Manager, or to deny the promotion and resign. Somewhat surprisingly, Nell's realization that she'd basically already taken Hetty's place made her realize that it wasn't exactly the job she was looking for.
So as one might imagine, Nell was pretty open-minded when Barrett Foa's Eric Beale offered her the opportunity to join him on a job running things in Tokyo. And as one might have also imagined, Nell didn't head out for her new gig without getting a chance to talk to Hetty, who returned to the NCIS offices to say goodbye and good luck to her pseudo-replacement.
Hetty's wisdom knows no bounds, of course, and she managed to take a load off of Nell's mental plate, saying Nell need not feel guilty about not taking the job. It turns out Hetty's push for Nell to move up the NCIS ladder was more of a supportive way to prove to Nell that she's worthy of the promotion and is capable of handling more job duties. Whether or not Nell actually took that specific job wasn't the point. She just had to know she could.
Of course, Hetty didn't offer up any explanations for her in-show absence, only telling Nell that it was a story for another time. One has to wonder whether we'll ever hear that story, or those stories, assuming it wasn't just one situation that kept her out of the office.
The episode DID give audiences a reason to think that Linda Hunt's Hetty will be back in a more permanent capacity in the show's future, with Season 13 already having been renewed, much to the delight of the main cast members. In the finale's final montage sequence, Hetty is shown to be standing over Kilbride and supervising him as he puts everything back in her office precisely where it was before. While it's obviously possible she'll still be gone for a bunch of episodes in Season 13, at least the writers are letting viewers know that the character isn't making any official exits within the storyline. And that's just going to have to be enough good news while waiting for new episodes to arrive this fall.